I will try to fix you

5 12 2011

My last post was a look at one of the questions raised by the idea of relational mission: what’s our motivation? What is underlying our desire to befriend people? This is some further musing on the same question. But this time I’m looking at it from another angle – what have the people we have befriended gained from being our friends?

I guess I’m challenging the unspoken assumption that getting to know ‘us’ is a good thing. In all the Church’s talk about mission, it’s taken for granted that our outreach to new people not currently connected to the Church is beneficial for those new people. That’s a theological assumption, I think. But if we no longer believe that we take God to where God is not (which, thankfully, we don’t) what ‘goods’ do we bring? And dare we test empirically how good it really is for people to interact with the Church? For whose benefit is that interaction, really? For those with whom we interact or for ourselves?

We are at least in part motivated I reckon by wanting to see the Church grow. Why? To shore up our own fragile faith by persuading others to share it or by temporarily fending off the decline that so sorely tests our confidence? Sound cynical? It is a bit. If we believe we really have good news it would be selfish to keep it to ourselves. But at the same time we need to recognise that our proselytising tendency can be experienced by others as a threat, particularly if they are of another faith background or are avowedly secular or humanist. While others might be prepared to say that those people are just plain wrong, I am not. We have to share this world. We need to find ways to peacefully co-exist. That means I think according people a high degree of dignity and respect and taking their views seriously. That means putting ourselves in others’ shoes. For me that means being prepared to ask whether, from the perspective of, say, a secular humanist, we might ever be viewed as a positive presence. So again I find myself asking: what ‘goods’ do we bring?

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I was having a conversation recently with someone who used to work in retail. They were telling me the story of a retailer who tried to grow their business by increasing the sale value of each customer interaction. The net result of all their action was that the business stayed exactly the same. Setting out to grow the business resulted in stagnation. The concentration on what the business wanted from the customer interaction did not allow that business to meet its aims. When, instead, they focused on what their customers wanted from their interaction with the business, the business grew.

That’s an anecdote and not careful research. But it does suggest that the Church will fail to achieve its desired growth if that is what it thinks about. Instead it hints that concentrating on the people with whom the Church interacts, considering their needs and desires, will be the only way that growth can happen. It’s only while we’re looking the other way that growth can occur. That’s a pretty bold statement and it’s based on pretty flimsy evidence. But surely that is what we’re all about. No, not bold statements based on flimsy evidence. Though that is something of which we’re often accused! I mean putting others first. We should be seeking to generously strive for the benefit of others as an end – the end – in itself, not merely as a strategy for achieving our organisational goals.

Some will argue, I guess, that wanting the Church to grow is for the benefit of the (capital ‘O’) Other. It’s for the ‘Glory of God’, whatever that means. But the Christian story surely makes clear that God is always out for the benefit of the (lower case ‘o’) other (even if some parts of the Bible are a little more difficult to reconcile with that proposition).

I wonder if you can see what I’m getting at? If you can, you might be able to help me because I’m not quite sure! I think I’m just trying to push the question of motivation all the way – in this instance in non-theological terms. Why? Because I think we have to at least try to imagine what it might be like to encounter a community of people that, to some degree, have an agenda that includes seeing you change. The Church is not unique in that but it’s there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about progress. It might mean – it pretty much does for some church members here in Somerstown, I think – that people with insurmountable mental health or addiction problems at least find a place to belong and to find companionship in the midst of their struggles.

But [finally he gets to the point] what has it meant to the newer members of the Sunday Sanctuary to encounter this fragile community of Christians and become part of it? How has that been good for them?

I haven’t really asked. But others have. These are not desperate or broken people we’re talking about, at least no more desperate or broken than the rest of us. So we haven’t fixed anyone (as if we could). The sense I have is that our new friends, like the rest of us have found a deeper and growing sense of belonging, self-esteem and purpose. And they, like us (these distinctions seem so empty of meaning now) have found new friends. We are all discovering a wider – yes theological – framework in which our being, our living and dying, our meaning and our place in this universe make a bit more sense. For some reading this, of course, that framework is inherently delusional and so cannot be a ‘good’ but I do beg to differ here. We are inhabiting, a little more deeply and in some subtle and unexpected ways, the idea that – to borrow the title of Rob Bell’s book – love wins. We’re aligning our lives as individuals, as families and as a whole community with the idea of that gentle victory, just a little more each week. I think in a tiny, tiny way, that’s making the world a little bit of a better place. That’ll do for me.





A beautiful failure

22 11 2011

20111122-172653.jpgIt has been two years since the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s in Somerstown (in the heart of Portsmouth) moved out of its building and began gathering instead in one of the nearby tower blocks. On Advent Sunday in 2009, with the Bishop’s permission, we ceased Sunday services and opened instead what we have called the Sunday Sanctuary. This wasn’t simply the relocation of our services to another place. We went right back to almost nothing. We had breakfast together and invited residents of the tower block (mainly young families) to join us. We imagined that the typical encounter would involve a bite to eat, a chat and maybe something a bit hands on and – with a light touch – spiritual. Maybe people would stop for 20 minutes or so.

We had no idea whether anyone would come. But come they did. And those who came did not come for a brief visit. They came in the moment we opened the doors each week, stayed with us all morning and before long, unbidden, got stuck in with clearing up at the end of the morning. This very different sort of engagement than we had imagined meant we very quickly had to give the morning more structure and shape. It threw us back on the liturgy. What we do together now has the skeleton of an Anglican Eucharist – we gather over breakfast; we set aside all that we regret from the past week; we collect our thoughts and prayers; we share a story and reflect together on its meaning for us today; we look out to the needs of those around us and the wider world; we give thanks; we share bread and grape juice and we ask God’s blessing as we go on. Though the flesh on the bones might not be so immediately familiar, there is a family resemblance with our sister churches in the Church of England.

As I reflect on the past two years, and what we’ve learnt together, I am bound to ask: has it been a success?

That, of course, depends on what you mean by success. I think we set out on this journey with a little bit of a Field of Dreams mentality: ‘if you build it, they will come’. (That’s a misquote I know but I hope you’ll excuse a little creative license there.) I think we set out with the idea that if we changed what we do together; changed where we do it and changed who we invited to come, that we would make some sort of breakthrough in Somerstown and in particular in the block of flats (Wilmcote House) to which we had relocated.

In those terms, the Sunday Sanctuary has failed.

We have failed to make a big breakthrough in Wilmcote House or in Somerstown. We have engaged with a small number of families in the block, some who have stayed with us and others who have moved on after a little while. But most of the young families in the block pretty much ignore us.

Maybe our ‘offer’ is wrong. We insist on children coming with at least one grown up. We are running a family gathering in a place and at a time when a significant number of parents just want their kids out of the way or off their hands. We had a suspicion from the outset that a kids’ club would be overwhelmed. We had neither the people nor the resources to sustain something like that. So we set ourselves the parameter of barring unaccompanied primary- and pre-school age children at the very beginning. That has proved very difficult at times. I have hated having to turn away kids that are desperate to come in.

But even more fundamentally, I think, the biggest flaw in our thinking is that we were still ultimately operating an attractional model of mission. We were still creating an event that we expected people to come to. We made it as easy as possible for people to come – especially by moving ourselves much closer to where they live. But it still relies on people responding to an invitation from strangers to come to an event they know little about.

So though we took a massive step out of our comfort zone, I still don’t think we fully inhabited Jesus’s radical sending of his disciples to be guests, reliant on the hospitality of others in hostile territory.

As an initiative, then, in terms of measurable outcomes, it has failed.

But what a beautiful failure.

I write this a couple of days after we baptised five members of our community. Of those (four children and one adult), only one came from a family that I think would have explicitly defined themselves as Christians a couple of years ago. And as I write this I am looking forward to seeing six more members of our community confirmed at the cathedral. People whose connection to Christian faith has been very basic and tenuous have discovered a lively faith for themselves.

We have grown in numbers in a small way. We’ve also lost some more longstanding Christians. Some were not able to cope with being so far out of their comfort. Others have simply relocated. So we are not much bigger.

That is so often the measure by which people – consciously or otherwise – judge whether something has been a success. I hinted at it myself earlier by talking about a ‘big’ breakthrough. And on those terms, we have just about stayed steady. We have failed to achieve numerical growth.

But our growth in depth has been marked. Those longstanding Christians who have been able to stick with it have grown in faith as they’ve engaged with new people in an unfamiliar setting. Newer members who had only the most nominal faith have reached a point where they are making a public commitment to live as a Christian. We’ve all grown in the breadth of our spiritual experience as we’ve moved closer to becoming united with our sister parish of St Peter’s.

But above all we’ve grown in the depth of our relationships. The newer members aren’t people who’ve joined us any longer. They are us. We have become one family.

There are lots of things we’ve learnt through this whole experience.

First, I think we’ve been reminded of something we already knew, even explicitly remarked upon. People in this place don’t come to stuff. It’s not a matter of tweaking our event to get it just right and then people will come. They won’t. They’re not interested. They don’t care what we have to say. Maybe we could cast our net a bit wider (leaflet all the tower blocks instead of just one) and maybe we’d get one or two more families like the lovely ones who found their way to us and became part of us. We will probably do that. But the fundamental and stark reality still holds. If we build it, they will not come.

Second, we can’t look to the handful of local families who are part of our community to reach their neighbours all by themselves. That’s because they are not the hard to reach, troubled families. Those who have joined us are really nice, together people. If that sounds judgemental on the rest of the families around, I’m sorry. But most of us know what we mean by ‘nice’ people. These are they. Sunday Sanctuary really was a sanctuary for them from the troubles and menace around them. It would take incredible courage, confidence and faith for these brand new Christians to reach out to the most challenging of their neighbours.

Third, that means this is no ‘hit and run’ sort of ministry for me. The idea I started out with that I could spend about three years here and, during that time, get something off the ground, train up local leaders and then move on to the next place (I really thought this!) – well that just seems laughable now. I am going to have to be here for the long haul.

Finally what has dropped like a great big penny is that ministry here has to be relational. Again, I’ve said that before. Right at the outset. But I’m only just beginning to understand what that means. What we’ve discovered, because this is what’s actually happened, is that if we’re going to make a difference in Somerstown, it will be one family at a time. It will be about investing in real friendship – giving time, attention, love and practical support to a small number of people at any one time. It’s like the old story of the little boy throwing starfish back into the sea after a storm. The beach is covered in starfish as far as the eye can see. A man says to the boy: ‘how on earth do you hope to make any difference?’ Picking up another starfish, and casting it back into the safety of the sea, the boy says, ‘made a difference to that one.’





New directions

23 06 2010

I know someone who got themselves in a right pickle by blogging about what had gone on in a PCC meeting. PCC? Parochial Church Council – it’s a Church of England parish’s very own baby church parliament. In other church traditions the whole membership of a local congregation takes decisions about the deployment of resources. In the Anglican setup, at least in England, these decisions are delegated to a small, elected, representative body: the PCC.

The Church of England is episcopally led and synodically governed. Basically that means that clergy have all the responsibility and none of the power! Which is a good thing, I think. No really it is. I aim to give away power and pursue influence instead.

Except tonight, the PCC gave genuine leadership itself I think. And I don’t think it will be a problem to blog about it – I’m bigging them up, not dissing them!

We finally, after a few days’ delay, met to kick start the process of discerning a way forward for our main activity. I was going to say, our main Sunday morning activity, but one of the options to emerge was that we should change the time when we meet. That suggestion came from me (and actually, initially from my colleague Alex, so I’ll steal no credit there).

After a short devotional introduction, and a bit of business, we began the process of examining where we’ve got to and where we might be going next. I was surprised by how positive we were about the first of those. There was no desire to roll back in terms of location or engagement or to attempt to work with a different ‘client group’. Young families are still the focus of our presence in Wilmcote House and Somerstown more generally. Measuring ourselves against each of the five values of a mission-shaped church, there was much to encourage us.

We all know, though, that there are frustrations for some of our number – the lack of opportunities to encounter God in sung worship, the lack of extended Bible teaching and opportunities for corporate prayer, the relentless hard work required to do what we’re doing now and the smaller numbers we’re seeing on Sunday mornings these days.

I don’t share many of these concerns personally, but is undeniable that they are very much in evidence among us and that these have the potential to break our communion. Sorry if that phraseology sounds too grand. This is not on the scale or intensity of the things threatening to break the Anglican Communion. But it is clear that we cannot carry the unresolved tension any further without people feeling compelled to walk away.

So, we try and move forward together; to preserve all that we have invested in each other. At the same time, we were keen to preserve the relationships we’ve established with our new friends in Wilmcote House. I was concerned that in our desire to reinstate some aspects of worship as we have experienced we might be loading people up with some unhelpful ‘baggage’ or, worse (is it worse?) put them off completely so that they never darken their door again.

We had an involved, and at odd moments, difficult, conversation. But we managed to conduct it in a spirit of honesty, humility and compassion. At the end of that discussion, we formulated three options:

  1. Integrate more familiar elements of worship throughout the morning.
    We would shorten our opening times. Instead of opening at 10 am, we would open at 10:30. As now, the first half hour would be set aside for welcome, breakfast and conversation. The next hour would incorporate singing, preaching and prayer alongside some more all-age focused activities.
  2. Add a ‘service’ at the end.
    The start and finish times would remain the same, and the time between 10:30 and 11:15 would remain predominated by all-age focused activities, but the time between 11:15 and 11:45 would be a more concentrated and structured service of worship including the elements identified in option 1.
  3. Move to the afternoon.
    Given that research suggests family activities are most successful in the afternoon, we thought we should consider as one of our options moving our activity to that time. This would involve an hour focused on hospitality and storytelling between 5pm and 6pm and then a contemporary music style service at 6:30 pm.

The master stroke that came out of our discussion was that the Wilmcote House families who are part of ‘us’ now should also be invited to participate in our discernment process. We could have invited them to come to our Tuesday evening gatherings that we have set aside for this purpose. But the suggestion that we should instead move our communal discernment to Sunday mornings for the next few weeks was recognised by all as the best way forward. It allows all ages to participate and allows the broadest possible participation in terms of residents, more longstanding members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s and some of that latter group who don’t normally make Tuesday evenings.

I am troubled by the possibility that we might be becoming more worship-shaped and less mission-shaped, slightly more stale than fresh expression, but I have to recognise the reality of where people are, what they’re able to give and what they need to receive. I just hope and pray that, whatever the final shape of what we do together, this is a necessary corrective to ensure we grow and develop as a pioneering community and not a withdrawal into more safe and familiar territory. That way lies our demise, I fear.





Power to the people!

9 06 2010

Another 70s TV reference! Robert Lindsay as ‘Wolfie’ from Citizen Smith.

So when the PCC of St Luke’s agreed to relocate our main Sunday activity to Wilmcote House — one of the local tower blocks — it was, at my suggestion, for the period of one year. We agreed that we would review before the summer break.

And here we are. That review is about to take place. And it’s clear that some members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s are wanting to ask some pretty searching questions about what we do. Let me be clear: that’s a good thing. I should be welcoming it. I do. But I also feel somewhat nervous about it.

Why is that?

Perhaps there are two reasons.

FIRST: THIS IS MY BABY

It isn’t of course. This is not my church or my mission. But its current form is an expression of a vision I’ve been articulating – that we would become a mission community, spending a period rooted in particular places in order to found new, indigenous and eventually self-sustaining congregations in Somerstown. TCFKASL (The Congregation Formerly Known As St Luke’s) would be sustained in its mission spirituality by forging and living a shared ‘rule’ in our Tuesday gatherings and our everyday lives.

So I’ve got a lot invested in this enterprise, emotionally, spiritually and, dare I say it, in terms of my reputation. Now some of you more saintly readers of this blog will perhaps be shocked that such a consideration as the last of those should even feature. But there it is. I admit it. I have an ego. It matters what people think. It’s not decisive, but it’s there. Perhaps because I acknowledge it, I’m better able to mediate against its less favourable influence. Time will tell.

By suggesting that we keep the arrangement to a year, I was attempting to save us from getting stuck in yet another set way of being and doing. It was my intention that the arrangement should never become fixed, but always provisional, under constant review. The funny thing is that I think of all of us involved, I have become the most ‘stuck’ in what we’re currently doing. I do genuinely think we might need to give it a bit longer to see how it might work. Even though this is the annual review, we’ve actually only been going for seven months.

SECOND: WHAT ABOUT US?

I am nervous because in part the motivation for some of the questioning is that perennial question ‘what about us?’ I don’t blame or condemn people for that question. It’s a perfectly legitimate question. I’ve been saying for all those months we’ve been operating and for several before that, that if we engage with God in God’s mission we will be fed. And I’ve been saying that if we engage with children, like whom we are invited to become, we will meet God. I’ve been saying it. But for some at least, the experience hasn’t lived up to my rhetoric. There is a degree to which I wonder whether people have been as open to those sorts of experience as they might. But the fact remains. What I said would happen for people has only happened really for those who already found spiritual fulfilment in those ways.

So my nervousness comes from the desire I hear being expressed to pull back from the ecclesiological edge to somewhere a little more familiar. It worries me that the new people we’ve got to know could be sidelined as longstanding Christians look for more of what they’ve known in their church experience.

This is such a difficult balance to tread. In one sense, I am tempted (alongside my recognition that ‘I’m a failure’) to see this as a failure of my leadership. I have not managed to persuade people or demonstrate to them in our shared enterprise that the presence of God is to be found and that this is of itself worship and offers opportunities for discipleship. I am actually not so sure of this position as I once was. I need to look into the Tradition and recent experience to explore more deeply how it is that a mission community on the edge is spiritually sustained.

But on another level, I think I can allow myself to recognise, without blowing my own trumpet – well all right, maybe just a little – that this paradoxically represents an endorsement of my leadership. Because alongside the mission stuff (and in fact not separable from it) is the community stuff. I have worked hard to foster investment in relationships that are open, honest and trusting. People expect and feel safe to share how they’re really finding their journey. And in looking for and implementing ways that we can share in communal discernment, I have encouraged this community to develop a flat structure and an ethos of shared responsibility.

We find our way forward together. So that’s what we’re doing. We are going to try to find a way forward together that allows space for people to be resourced spiritually in more familiar ways as well as engaging in adventurous mission.





Take a chance on me…

13 03 2010

Any priest who encouraged their congregation to take a punt on the ponies would probably not be surprised to be summoned to see their bishop. Gambling has probably rightly been seen as difficult to reconcile with Christian discipleship. It’s forever associated in the Christian imagination with the game of dice that determined which of the soldiers that had brutally executed Jesus would get to keep the shirt off his back. Gambling is associated too with the frivolous waste of resources – the opposite of good stewardship – and with greed and vice. Games of chance seem at odds with a somewhat more deterministic Christian worldview. Letting things turn on the roll of a dice appears the inverse of seeking to learn the will of God.

And yet at the very beginning of the Church’s life we see a pretty major decision being made on the basis of a game of chance. Choosing the successor of Judas was settled by the casting of lots (aka cleromancy [sorry I love jargon]) according to the book of Acts.

It’s not the only time it features in the Bible when people are trying to hear from God or in the next case, the gods. In the story of Jonah, the stormblown sailors work out who the ‘Jonah’ is by casting lots. According to some writers on t’internet there are 70 references to ‘lots’ in the Hebrew Scriptures and a handful in the New Testament. That may be right or it might not. To be honest I can’t be bothered to trawl through and check it out. Maybe I should cast my urim and thummim to find out…

Thinking about the choosing of Matthias over Justus led me to wonder about the role of chance in the process of discernment.

If you’re a reasonably regular reader of this blog then you’ll probably have been wondering if there was ever going to be anything new on here anytime soon. But leaving that aside you probably also know that I’m in the process of writing my MA disssertation at present. It’s on the subject of discernment in pioneer ministry. This is no pure ‘academic’ exercise for me. There are some really puzzling questions facing my colleague and I and the churches and communities we serve. Finding out what shape is taken here by the ‘thy will’ that we want to ‘be done’ in Somerstown as in heaven is very much on our agenda. I’ll say more in coming posts about what we might mean by God’s will and how we engage with it. For now let it suffice to say that I don’t think it’s as simple as working out what God wants and then just getting on with it.

Thinking about casting lots came about as I puzzled over how to help my little mission community – the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s – into taking part in and responsibility for discerning a way foward for our ‘Sunday Sanctuary’ endeavour as we went away together for the first weekend in March. I was taking a trawl through the book of Acts looking at occasions when the Church in mission engaged in a process of discernment as its members wrestled with questions of direction. And this choice – who should replace Judas as one of ‘the Twelve’ – was the first that we looked at. At our weekend away, I suggested four features of that process that might help us in facing the questions that lay before us. I’ve since thought of a fifth. So starting with that new thought, here are five features of the discernment process that I discern in Acts 1.12-26.

  1. BEING GROWN UP
    This is pretty much the first decision that the band of Jesus’ disciples had to make following the ascension of Jesus. Here for the first time they’re on their own. They’re not simply following where they’re led anymore. The responsibility lies with them. I think that’s significant. It’s not simply a matter of seeing where Jesus is off to next and tagging along. It calls for a degree of maturity, independence even. I don’t mean that they are no longer dependent on Christ. But their relationship has changed. He is simply not physically there any more. The disciples have to come to terms hwith his abscence. His promised presence comes to them through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the Acts account, the fullness of the Spirit is yet to come at this point. They’re not quite on their own. But they’re not just followers any more either. It’s down to them. They have to grow up.
  2. GROUNDED IN PRAYER
    But as much as they have to grow up from their dependence on Jesus’ constant physical presence and direction, they are absolutely grounded in prayer. They don’t approach this question cold, their response comes out of their prayer. According to the writer of Acts they are ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’. I think this isn’t so much about just becoming empty vessels through which the Holy Spirit can speak. Prayer is the means by which they continue to be formed as disciples; to become themselves; to grow up into the people God is calling them to be.
  3. ROOTED IN THE TRADITION
    Judas was a pretty bad egg. At least that’s what the writer of this text wants us to think. None of this hanging himself after being overcome with remorse as in Matthew. (Take note anyone who wants to deny that the Bible has errors or contradictions.) In contrast to Matthew’s account, the Acts writer depicts a smug Judas getting his come-uppance. God gets ‘medieval on his ass’. Anyway none of that is really the point! The point is that despite having had a really bad experience with one of the Twelve (whom incidentally, Jesus chose), they don’t think: ‘well, eleven apostles is enough’. It doesn’t even occur to them that there should be fewer than twelve. The deep sacramental significance of the number is not a matter of small importance for them. It was what they had received from their Lord and it echoed the symbolic division of tribes in their own sacred history. There was no question for them but that their should be a twelfth apostle.
  4. TAKING RESPONSIBILITY
    I suppose this is very much linked to the first point, so maybe that wasn’t such a new point after all. But it comes from a different part of this story of discernment. There are about 120 people together at the point of making this choice. Some of these will have joined the growing (and, on occasion, shrinking) band of disciples at different points in Jesus’ ministry. But the original Twelve were chosen from a bigger band of followers who had been there from the start: Jesus’ baptism. So I think it’s unlikely that the two names were the only two possible names that could have been put forward at this point. This group have taken responsibility and narrowed down the options. From a larger field of candidates they have got it down to two between whom they cannot choose. They’ve got two good options. If there was only one obvious choice, they wouldn’t have needed the next step. It would have been settled by default. But the writer wants us to see that the unsuccesful candidate was a jolly good egg. Joseph Barsabbas (son of Sabbas) has the latin nickname ‘Justus’ – meaning fair-minded.
  5. LEAVING IT TO CHANCE
    This is the bit that is the most difficult for the modern mind to cope with. But when it came down to it, they left it to chance. They drew straws or threw dice or coloured stones. We don’t know exactly how they ‘cast lots’ and it’s a good thing that we don’t. Otherwise we might have ritualised that particular action instead of being able to see the metaphorical possibilities. There is a place for chance, or happenstance if you prefer, in finding a way forward.

At the beginning of our weekend away we drew straws to see who would end up reading which Bible passage of the half a dozen or so we would be hearing over the course of the weekend. I suggested to people that if they got one of the Bible readings they might look for what God wanted to say to them through this particular reading. And to those who didn’t get a reading, I made the invitation that they look for what God was wanting to say to them through not having a specific passage to look at.

Does that mean that I think God chose this particular reading (or lack of a reading) for them? I honestly don’t know.

I suspect not.

I think it’s more about the openness to hear from God that’s important. I believe that God, by God’s Spirit is gently calling, speaking, leading us all the time. That openness, if people achieved it, will have created the space for them to connect with the still small voice and so grow into what God has for them. Do you understand what I mean?

I guess I’d say the same about that group of disciples. Was Matthias the only right choice? Was there some flaw in Justus’ character that meant he would have been a disaster? He surely couldn’t have been worse than Jesus’ personal choice: Judas. So maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe both men would have been an equally good choice but in the end there could be only one. So let chance happen and see what emerges.

But what both men had, I think, is character. They were formed through their experience of Jesus and their deep and constant engagement with God in prayer. In the end it was about the whole community being shaped by Christ together and then seeing what happened. As I’ve said before I think this is a more authentic way of reading the stories of Jesus himself. I don’t think his ministry is about him following a minutely laid out plan. So that at every point he is hearing form his Father what to do next – turn left up ahead you’ll meet a blind man, heal him; breathe in, Son, now breathe out – no I really think Jesus just wanders about and stuff happens because of who he is. Wherever he goes, there’ll be a blind man or a troubled woman or a demoniac or a dead child. So maybe for us too, discernment is more about the formation of a Christlike character in us as individuals and communities. Making some choices ourselves using the brains what God has given us, then, taking a chance, letting stuff happen.





Hanging with the abbot

8 07 2009

MarkBerryPortraitMark Berry speaks passionately about the values of the ‘Safespace’ community in Telford– hospitality and mission, diversity and inclusion, openness and commitment. Those are my words for what I heard Mark articulating in several different conversations — with me, with an American journalist, and with the community itself.

I wonder to what extent those are Mark’s values and how much they are understood and owned by the individual members of the community. What I’ve outlined above is broad and open enough for anyone to find a home within it. That’s not to say it’s vacuous. It does have content. In fact it is best expressed not systematically, but narratively. The bible and particularly the gospels are normative for all Christian communities (although sometimes you wonder if people are reading the same gospels as you are!). But in addition to the Bible, the story of St Brendan is particularly formational for this community. And in one sense it doesn’t matter if every individual is completely sold on every aspect. The creeds represent the Church’s corporate affirmation of faith but there’s probably not one individual who would go to the stake for each and every line. So people in this community can recognise and affirm their corporate story without being subsumed within it.

I suppose I‘d like to explore with Mark how that story came to be part of this community’s story. Did Mark’s articulation of this set of values and the story of Brendan lead to the forming of a community around that narrative? Or did Mark bring the story into a community that grew out of relationships? The two are not mutually exclusive of course. But the reason I would like to explore this is twofold – first because of Mark’s skepticism about leadership, and second because the question of how a community determines its values/vision is a live one for me and the community I *lead*.

I think Mark gives quite a strong lead to this community. I don’t mean that negatively. It’s not that he imposes his will. It’s more that they look to Mark for direction and inspiration. At least that’s my impression after the few days I spent with Mark and his community.

Mark spoke about being guardian of the community rather than its leader. He seems to me to be more like an abbot. This is a community that models itself on the monasticism of previous times. So in this regard it perhaps matters more than in other sorts of ecclesial community whether individual members buy into its vision and identity. The members of this community are asked to live out the values, not just in what they do together but to take them on as a ‘rule of life’ wherever they are as individuals too. So they do stuff together and they do stuff apart but still trying to live out the values when they are apart. All the members I met, apart from Mark and his family, are members of churches. There are some, whom I didn’t meet on this occasion, who are leaders of churches. But the members of the community are also involved in running Sank•tuary together – an initiative which Mark says grew out of the community. And though it’s very open and welcoming of new people, whether as fellow travellers for a time or as new members, there is a sort of novitiate of a year, after which people are given a St Brendan cross to indicate their belonging and adoption of the community’s shared values. The interesting question is the extent to which the community adapts its identity and values to accommodate new members and the extent to which new members are required to adapt themselves to join the community.

If I have to write the word ‘community’ one more time, I will be physically sick. It has to be the most overused word ever. I find myself using it far too much when I talk about our two parishes’ involvement in Somers Town. I said to someone just yesterday that we want to ‘engage with the community’.

Oh dear, there I go. Excuse me a second. Bleeuurrghh!

Actually one of the things about Somers Town is that it isn’t a c*******y. It doesn’t have that social coherence that would make it a… you know what. I should start using the word ‘locality’. That would be a much more accurate word to describe the social situation in the… erm… locality.

Anyway, I digress. Safespace probably does justify that word that I’m no longer mentioning, because it’s intentional about being it. And in that regard it is further along the road than the congregation of St Luke’s is currently. I would love us to get to a point where our shared life provides a framework for each of us living missionally in every part of our lives as well as directly being involved together in the locality for which we have a responsibility. The Fresh Expressions/Pioneer Ministry agenda should encourage us to think beyond the parish system, but if we disconnect from ‘place’ as our locus for mission, we have forgotten the central and defining feature of what it means to be Anglican. Some of us may not care about that but this is where – to pick up on my previous post – my role as priest is to keep our connection to a wider story ever in front of us.





T800: infiltration unit

14 06 2009

christian_bale_says_i_ll_be_back_in_new_terminator‘I’ll be back!’ So says John Connor in Terminator Salvation in a scriptwriter’s tongue-in-cheek reference to the famous Arnie line.

Barbara and I went to see the latest film in the Terminator franchise last night. The critics are right to say it’s no T2 but I really enjoyed it. Partly because I am a sucker for sci fi and special effects and partly because I like Christian Bale as an actor (tho’ less so since his ridiculous outburst on the set of this film got out on t’internet).

Like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and other films I grew up with, Terminator is not just a film, it’s part of my psychic landscape. So I was a bit nervous about going to see another installment if it was going to shatter my boyish enjoyment of the fantasy world that had so gripped my imagination in my youth.

I scoured online reviews beforehand. They were not encouraging. I shouldn’t have worried though. The reviews were mainly griping about the weakness of the plot but generally I’m such a visual person that I notice what a film looks like more than I notice the narrative. And this did look stunning, in a gritty way — maybe not as stunning as Star Trek — but it had some breathtaking moments, even if it occasionally looked a bit ‘domestic’ in scale.

That said, there were some weaknesses in the story. I won’t post any plot spoilers here, but if you have seen the film, I wonder if you thought there was a pretty major ethical question that was just glossed over at the end. One of the main characters makes an offer that should surely be refused on ethical grounds but is just accepted by everyone in that scene.

It’s tempting to look for religious parallels in any film that uses the word ‘salvation’ in its title but actually the idea of self-sacrifice to save another is in all the Terminator films, even the fairly weak Terminator 3.

I did wonder whether there was any mileage in seeing the church in mission as an ‘infiltration unit’. One is tempted at times to think that some Christians are only pretending to be human! But this did get me thinking as I reflected on the story of St Paul in the Areopagus in preparation for Sunday morning’s service. I have been encouraging the congregation to think a lot about how we might be called to give up our spiritual preferences for the sake of others. In this episode from the book of Acts we read how one moment St Paul is distressed and even outraged by the plethora of idols he sees in Athens and the next he is talking about his spiritual common-ground with the Athenians. We shouldn’t underestimate what a big stretch it was for this conservative pharisee to recognise the spirituality of these liberal pagans. But does that mean St Paul is some sort of gospel Terminator – an infiltration unit, pretending to be like people he’s actually not like at all? The letter to the Corinthians (one of the undisputedly Pauline epistles) might suggest so, at least at first glance, as St Paul writes  ‘I have become all things to all people’. But does that mean that he, and we following his example, should pretend to be something other than ourselves in order to win people over to the Christian gospel? That would surely be dishonest. It would be a subterfuge. It would be ethically unacceptable to deceive people in that way and it would be damaging to ourselves to live with such ‘cognitive dissonance’.

I was saying to a friend recently that there’s a difference between self-denial and self-sacrifice. I know that in the synoptic gospels Jesus calls those who would be his disciples to ‘deny themselves’ but I’m using ‘deny’ here in the psychoanalytic sense. As I explained it to my friend, it’s one thing to pretend to yourself and others that you don’t have a particular desire, preference or wish when really you do. It’s quite another to acknowledge your desire, preference or wish and yet willingly give it up for the sake of others.

I think that it’s long been a part of the Christian tradition that the latter of those courses of action, paradoxically, is not a self-denial but a self-realisation. In willingly and knowingly giving up our ‘self’ for the sake of others, we open ourselves up to the possibility of growth, of becoming more than we were before, of becoming more fully ourselves. Self-sacrifice does not diminish us, therefore, but helps us to become ourselves. That I think is the experience for St Paul, as it was for others, such as St Peter when he moved out of his cultural and religious comfort zone and was willing to recognise Gentiles as brothers and sisters.

So I think the Christian community won’t lose its identity in mission (as some seem to suggest) but find it. We should be ourselves and become ourselves with and for others. And here in Somers Town where people are so often disparaged, denied and abandoned, to be able to say with conviction: ‘I’ll be back’ will be crucial. People need to be able to trust us. They’ll only trust us when they know us. And they’ll only take the risk to know us when they feel convinced that we will be back. Again and again and again.